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Thinking about recovery from depression often makes me dizzy. I’m trying to follow at once all the brief streaks of light from this roman candle mind. Each one’s gone before I can see where it’s headed, and I wind up chasing nothing. I have even asked myself, why get well?
There is so much talk of journeys or paths or steps leading from here, the place of pain, to an often hazy there, a place where the pain no longer dominates, or where a new life awaits you. There are journeys toward the fulfillment of my Jungian self, toward bliss through magnetized neurons, toward positive thinking, toward inner chemical balance, toward stress-free living, toward fit, lean and sweaty health, toward self-esteem, toward nurturing of my lost inner child, toward mindfulness, toward freedom, toward God. I’m reeling and drunk on a hundred paths, starting and stopping, striking out then retracing steps or, worse still, striding with confidence down a path that disappears in dark woods.
I suppose that at some time everyone has heard a certain voice within. In my case, it speaks my name, calling with total authority, as if to demand I come back from confusion. JOHN! It never says anything else and does not have to. Its tone resonates through every bone, its command instantly snaps on every sleeping nerve circuit in my brain. There is no resisting it.
Clear and commanding, that voice sounded again in the middle of a recent night when I was sizzling obsessively over something I can’t even remember now but that seemed larger than my life at that moment. The call of my name centered me, snapped me back from the mental hole I had been digging, but that was not the end of its impact. For then I realized I had to pick up one of the half dozen books sprawled on the night table next to me – a book of spiritual meditations. I had begun reading through it earlier but couldn’t really focus on what it was saying so I had put it aside. Now I started over, and the words went straight in. Each brief meditation offered a glimpse into the intense struggle by a Catholic priest to recover from a deep depression that had challenged his faith in God.
The book is The Inner Voice of Love
by Henri Nouwen and is subtitled A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. So here was another journey, but the metaphor was not central to Nouwen’s experience. Instead of moving him neatly step by step toward his goal, the meditations probe and test the tenets of his faith, as he urgently applies them to himself. I had thought when first scanning through that he was addressing his words to the reader with a prescriptive “you” that I often find irritating in books like this. “You” must do this or “we” must remember to … Such directives often seem to come from the mind, not the heart and so I avoid them. But as I looked closely, I suddenly realized that this writer wasn’t talking to his readers. He was desperately trying to remind himself of the reality of his faith.
From somewhere inside him, a voice was speaking, and the urgency of his writing revealed the deep misery that he was trying to overcome. He does not so much assert as ask: is this really true, is this belief that I have written and preached so often to others going to heal me? Is my faith in God going to survive? What am I missing, what am I learning from this anguish, is it a test or is it simply the end of me?
What flowed into me with such immediacy and bright clarity was an almost word for word correspondence to my own struggle. Nouwen was reaching into himself for the strength – and faith – to come back from a loss that felt like spiritual death. Here is how he describes his life in this period:
“I had come face to face with my own nothingness … I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. … All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.”
As deep as that depression was, he could still write – …writing became part of my struggle for survival. It gave me the little distance that I needed to keep from drowning in my despair. And so each day he wrote to himself the spiritual imperatives of this journal.
“Try to keep your small, fearful self close to you. This is going to be a struggle, because you have to live for a while with the not yet. Your deepest, truest self is not yet home.”
“When you are temporarily pulled out of your true self, you can have the sudden feeling that God is just a word, prayer is fantasy, sanctity is a dream, and the eternal life is an escape from true living.”
“The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them.”
“You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move toward the Light, the Truth and the Life.”
Choice is the recurring word. He ends these reflections not in a glowing reaffirmation of his faith but in the awareness that his struggle will continue, that each day he is faced with a choice.
“Your future depends on how you choose to remember your past. Choose for the truth that you know. … You are not alone. … What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.”
For me, depression itself is not a choice – it is a condition that seeps into me. The choice is what I do after it has taken over. I lack the clear faith and imperatives that Nouwen could turn to, but what I try to maintain is the will to choose some way out of depression.
Is that determination the key for you? How do you keep it alive?